On Top by Joe Mills

An upright piano has an architectural element that makes it different from other instruments and from other keyboards as well. It has a flat top. An area that can function as a shelf. One that inevitably accumulates objects. No one places their phone on their guitar or violin, even when they’re not playing it; yet most people don’t hesitate to put something on an upright. And, even as they do, it remains functional.

What’s on our piano at the moment? A cloth runner. Photos of family, including the kids at various points in their lives. Two candles. A clothespin doll the son made at school that is supposed to look like his mother (and which we call “Jazz Singer Mama”). A ceramic bird on wheels made by a good friend. A pen cap (removed at this writing). A small painted rock whose origin is unknown. A demi-bottle of French wine that won’t fit in the nearby rack.

In short, the top of our piano is an odd art exhibition of our lives, partly curated and partly haphazard, partly permanent and partly temporary. The space feels unintentionally significant, even powerful. The only equivalent in the house is, perhaps, the fireplace mantle.

Out of curiosity, I asked my Facebook friends what was on top of their pianos.

Several answered lamps and metronomes, which made me realize that anyone coming to our house would know immediately we’re not serious players (although my wife does use a metronome app on her phone). One insisted that these were “exactly what should be there” and another remembered that for her mother, a music teacher, these were “the ONLY things allowed.” For some, the piano is a workspace and to be treated as such. After all, a chef doesn’t put knick-knacks near the chopping board, and a carpenter doesn’t clutter the tool bench with children’s school projects.

Many people listed books, not just music books but poetry and literature. This isn’t surprising. As all readers know, once books are allowed in the house, they vigorously multiply, covering every available horizontal space like kudzu. The man who tunes our instrument told me that he has seen pianos so piled with books and manuscripts that the tops have been permanently warped.

Photos are common as are art works, plants, and flowers (cut, dried and fake). Also mentioned were a ukulele, tchotchkes, a non-working antique clock, a cow skull, a small bust of Beethoven, a TV, toys, and “random crap like kindles and papers and junk.”

One person managed to get quite a bit into the space: “a lamp, nine family photos (seven framed, two just stuck there), a diploma from Salem College, a vase from the Netherlands, a ceramic bowl and a Carole King ‘Tapestry’ song book. One time there was a 5-foot black snake but I didn’t put it there.”

Some responded “dust,” and others answered “a cat.”

The piano top is a type of eddy in the household, collecting things from the current of our daily lives and holding them there for a while, but I think it’s also more than that.

In old musicals, occasionally an appreciative listener will bang out rhythms on the top or rest drinks and ashtrays there. Sometimes someone will even sit there, or a dancer will exuberantly leap up and tap. It’s a gesture that has always felt transgressive, even shocking to me, and I finally more fully understand why. It’s not simply jumping on furniture; that particular space is different. It’s more than just a shelf or a storage area.

The piano top, at least in someone’s home, becomes a type of altar. We collect meaningful images and totems to display, and we sit before these, lowering ourselves down, engaging in ritualized play, and holding ourselves in postures of concentration. We practice (a word with religious connotations, we speak of “practicing” Christians or “practicing” Buddhists), and, as we do, the music moves up and into and through these objects, infusing them with a type of power and infusing us.

Is it significant what’s on a piano top? Probably not. Is it significant if something is there? Probably so.


Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). A new book of poetry is coming out in April: Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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